Zander, Boston Philharmonic offer fresh, distinctive take on Russian favorites

October 23, 2016 at 12:03 pm

By Aaron Keebaugh

Benjamin Zander conducted the Boston Philharmonic in a Russian program Saturday night at Jordan Hall.

Large-scale romantic works seem tailor-made for Benjamin Zander and the Boston Philharmonic. Recent seasons have featured performances of symphonies by Mahler, Bruckner, and Rachmaninoff. This season Zander and the orchestra continue that tradition by offering Mahler’s spirit-surging Second Symphony and Bruckner’s powerful unfinished Ninth.

Saturday night at Jordan Hall, Zander and the orchestra turned to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony as part of a captivating season-opening program of Russian works.

Tchaikovsky’s final symphony is an epic struggle of mixed emotions. Subtitled the Pathétique because of its unrelenting pathos, the work unfolds over a fifty-minute time span. The symphony also stretches the rules of contemporary structure with a slow movement ending the work. Brass chords and gong sound the death knell at symphony’s end, and the piece ends in torment and darkness.

It’s easy for conductors of a well-known work such as this one to go on autopilot. But Zander kept tight reins on the ensemble, leading with broad gestures and a careful ear to the details of the score, including strict adherence to Tchaikovsky’s numerous tempo markings. The result was a performance that was utterly convincing in dramatic power.

The orchestra sounded as good as it ever has, with radiant string sonorities and bright, crystalline playing from the woodwinds and brass. The inner two movements had a dance-like energy. The limping 5/4 “waltz” of the second movement swept along with grace, recalling the composer’s ballet music, while the third movement moved with whirling exuberance. Zander built the phrases to a rousing climax that elicited early applause from a few listeners.

The beating heart of this work, though, rests in the outer movements, and Zander coaxed playing of rapt emotional intensity. The principal theme of the first movement unfolded in phrases of rosy-toned lyricism, with the conductor pushing and pulling at the tempo for dramatic effect. The quick sections sounded with a burst of energy, effectively capturing the angst of this affecting work. One may never hear this symphony played with more conviction.

Filling out the concert’s first half was Rachmaninoff’s popular Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Ya-Fei Chuang

Ya-Fei Chuang

The soloist, pianist Ya-Fei Chuang, is a Boston favorite, having performed in recitals and with ensembles around the city and in major festivals around the globe. Chuang possesses a fantastic technique and the fluid efficiency to pull it off with grace. Her tone is warm and buttery, which made her Rachmaninoff a pleasure to experience. She performed the filigree of the first variation with delicate touch, and elsewhere played with a keen sense of musicality, trading soft phrases with solo winds and strings in the later variations. In the final variations she performed nimble and athletic renditions of the tricky pointillistic phrases that dot the score.

The orchestral accompaniment led by Zander felt a little stiff at the beginning, but loosened up by the seventh variation, where Chuang and the orchestra engaged in searching phrases of the “Dies Irae.” The popular eighteenth variation was dreamy as the strings layered sheets of lush sound over Chuang’s singing piano figures.

The opener, Lera Auerbach’s Icarus, is making its Boston premiere with this weekend’s concerts.

Her music certainly makes one sit up and pay attention. Icarus, a twelve-minute symphonic poem, blazes with intensity, and like her First Symphony, is a study in shifting moods. At one moment the music is fiery and brassy, at others searching and lyrical. Moreover, the work is colorful and includes a large percussion section and even a theremin. The score is also impeccably crafted and delivers a dramatic punch. Auerbach’s harmonic language is rife with prickly dissonances and angular Rochberg-like figures that swell into piercing Pendereckian clusters.

Icarus begins rather violently, with darting string lines and aggressive pizzicatos setting the pace. These sounds melt into a subdued section, where statements from solo violin, cello, and flute seem to float about freely. In a later passage, a child-like waltz theme unfolds in pizzicato strings and celeste. The theremin, played alertly by Thorwald Jørgensen, gave the music a haunting vocal quality.

Benjamin Vickers, assistant conductor for the Boston Philharmonic, drew playing of stirring energy to make a strong case for Auerbach and her work. The audience agreed and rewarded the composer with rapturous cheers and applause when she took her bow.

The program will be repeated 3 p.m. Sunday at Sanders Theatre.

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